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Syria hails Aleppo airport reopening as a victory over rebels

Source: Reuters - Wed, 22 Jan 2014 15:03 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* Airport reopens after army secures surrounding area

* Rival rebel groups clash in Aleppo outskirts

* Reopening coincides with start of Syria peace talks

By Stephen Kalin

BEIRUT, Jan 22 (Reuters) - Syria hailed the reopening of Aleppo international airport on Wednesday after a year's closure as a military victory over rebels, on the opening day of peace talks in Switzerland aimed at ending the civil war.

Syrian state television reported that a passenger flight carrying a media delegation from Damascus, 300 km (200 miles) to the south, landed at 10:30 a.m. (8:30 a.m. GMT) in Aleppo, formerly Syria's commercial hub and its most populous city.

A reporter for the government outlet said the flight was made possible by the army's control of the entire area around the airport, which he said had been achieved over the past week. Aleppo's airport was closed last year due to clashes and shelling but military aircraft continued to use it.

"The takeoff and landing of this plane was very successful," he said from the airport's landing strip. "This shows that the forces of the Syrian Arab Army - even as military operations continue in Aleppo and its suburbs - have extended their full control over the area surrounding Aleppo international airport."

The director of the airport said takeoff and landing required a five kilometre (3 mile) area around the airport to be secured. He said that the plane did not encounter gunfire or any other hostile action during the 55 minute flight.

Rebels have held roughly half of Aleppo since storming into the city in mid-2012, holding off a government counter-offensive and consolidating their control over rural areas and the northern border with Turkey.

BOMBARDMENT

The government has tried to retake lost areas of the city, most recently with a bombardment campaign of residential areas last month that killed hundreds of civilians.

Last week, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said he had handed Russia plans for a ceasefire with rebel forces in Aleppo as a potential confidence-building measure between the warring sides.

But no such agreement was reached before the Syrian government delegation flew to Switzerland on Tuesday for a peace conference attended by world powers and the Western-backed opposition. Most rebel groups are not represented at the talks.

Clashes continued on Wednesday on the southern outskirts of Aleppo between militants from the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and more moderate Islamist fighters.

More than 1,000 people have been killed this month due to the infighting between rival rebel groups, which is fueled by resentment of ISIL's kidnapping and killing of opponents and its drive to impose its own strict interpretation of Islamic law.

The fighting has depleted rebel ranks and helped government forces to retake territory around Aleppo in its wake. (Editing by Gareth Jones)

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